How should Barack Obama respond to North Korea's latest provocation?

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

NORTH KOREA'S campaign to win attention and favors from the Obama administration continues to escalate. Over the weekend the regime announced that it had resumed the reprocessing of plutonium for nuclear weapons at its Yongbyon nuclear facility, having previously ejected U.N. inspectors. Quite possibly the claim was false: Experts estimate that it would take months at least to restart the reprocessing facility, and up to a year to turn on the main reactor. In any case, North Korea's capacity to add to its current arsenal of half a dozen bombs is limited -- perhaps one warhead a year.

Probably that's why the regime further upped the ante by declaring that two American journalists it is holding would be put on trial. The two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, were arrested March 17 along North Korea's border with China, most likely on the Chinese side. Working for San Francisco-based Current TV, they were investigating the issue of North Korean refugees in China -- including the underreported scandal of the trafficking of North Korean women. No doubt Pyongyang realizes that live hostages are better than a crumbling nuclear facility; it surely took note when Iran, which has received loads of attention from the new American president, put American journalist Roxana Saberi on trial this month.

While experts endlessly debate Iran's intentions, those of dictator Kim Jong Il aren't hard to figure. He would like the Obama administration to engage his regime in bilateral talks -- excluding South Korea, Japan and other U.S. partners -- and then offer it economic and political bribes in exchange for North Korea releasing the U.S. hostages and shutting down Yongbyon again. Mr. Kim has already succeeded in selling a Yongbyon closure to two U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; why not, he must reason, try for a three-peat? Unfortunately, the Obama administration's part-time envoy for North Korea, Stephen W. Bosworth, has already signaled that Pyongyang's crude strategy might work by publicly offering bilateral talks along with "incentives" and by suggesting that the six-party negotiations including U.S. allies will be downgraded.

The Obama administration must do whatever it can to free the American journalists. But caving to Mr. Kim -- again -- would be foolish. A better response would be to restore and improve on the financial sanctions built by the Bush administration, while encouraging South Korea to join multilateral efforts to stop North Korea's illegal arms trafficking. China, which has more leverage than does the United States, should be enlisted to apply a squeeze, as it has in the past. Refugees in northern China should be helped. Meanwhile North Korea should be encouraged to return to the six-party talks -- where its extortion gambit is far harder to pull off.

In short, the administration should make clear that it feels no urgency to respond to Pyongyang's provocations. "We have to be strong, patient and consistent and not give in to . . . the unpredictable behavior of the North Korean regime," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told Congress last Wednesday. The weekend's events shouldn't change that position.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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